Terra Incognita: Not too shabby

For all the noise about discrimination against Muslims and Arabs in the US after September 11, there has been little discussion of their success there.

April 6, 2010 23:44
4 minute read.
A small part of the 9/11 memorial in Jerusalem.

911 memorial jlem 311. (photo credit: Seth Frantzman)


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The recent revelations about “Jihad Jane” and several other homegrown terrorist plots in the US bring questions about American Muslims to the fore. For all the noise about discrimination against Muslims and Arabs in the US after 9/11, there has been little discussion of their success there.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, founded in 1994, has made much of claims that Muslims face a massive uphill battle. It argues that they suffer from stereotypes in film and media, and are harmed even in the realm of greeting cards and American holidays. The Arab-American Discrimination Committee (ADC) likewise portrays a situation of crises and racial profiling. Following the November 2009 Fort Hood massacre by Maj. Nidal Hassan, it called on law enforcement agencies to provide “immediate protection for all mosques, community centers, schools and any locations that may be identified or misidentified with being Arab, Muslim, South Asian or Sikh, as a clear backlash has already started.”

Not so much worried about the victims of the massacre, it encouraged local people to call the FBI and the ADC to file a complaint. It also oddly encouraged people to be worried if their “work, place of worship or school” might be “misidentified with Arabs,” and encouraged people to go to a “safe location,” such as a church.

Tales of woe and fear-mongering play better among people in the 21st century than tales of triumph and success. Philip Salem, author of an article on the crises and challenges of Arabs in America, claimed “Arabs are depicted in America as uncivilized and backward people. This image of the Arab has been painted by a political minority in America to discredit the struggle of Arabs in the Middle East.”

Tolerance.org, a Web site of the activist Southern Poverty Law Center, noted that “since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Arab Americans have been the targets of profound bias, harassment and hate crimes. Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East only exacerbate stereotypes about people of Arab descent.”

BUT ONE wonders if Lebanese-born Walid Chammah, the erudite co-president of Morgan Stanley, has to run to a church for fear of being “misidentified” as an Arab. Does he have to fear attack at his townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where in the midst of the 2008 financial crises he and other top executives gathered for a secret meeting to save Lehman Brothers? Probably not.

What of the most powerful bond investor in the world, Mohamed el-Erian, CEO of PIMCO? Must he be afraid of racial profiling? And what of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, which spent 17 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and is credited with warning of the global banking crises back in 2007?

What is often not reported is the incredible success of Arab Americans, particularly on Wall Street. Like their Jewish cousins before them, and like Indians, they have excelled in America’s financial markets. Some were born abroad, like Nassim Taleb whose family were prominent Greek-Orthodox Lebanese from Amioun. Chammah attended the American University of Beirut. Others were born in America, like Erian, whose father was a diplomat.

What their resumes don’t reflect is a great degree of discrimination. From the best universities to the best Wall Street firms, their Arab ethnicity and names didn’t seem to hamper their climb to success. Perhaps this is because the wild world of Wall Street has often awarded brilliance and cunning over race.

ONE PLACE that Wall Street’s Arab financiers have often gathered is at the annual conference of the New York-based Arab Bankers Association of North America. Founded in 1982 to “foster professional exchange” and “promote business interests,” this organization now numbers hundreds of individual and institutional members. In 2006 it elected its first female president, Laura Osman. Its board members in 2010 include Mahmoud Mamdani of Morgan Stanley, Amr Nosseir of Perella Weinberg Partners (the firm founded by Joseph Perella, a mergers and acquisitions specialist), Damascus born A. Sami Idliby of UBS and Mahmoud Salem of BNY Mellon.

Wall Street’s Arab and Muslims are a quiet bunch. When as many as 358 of them died on 9/11, not much was said about the Muslim victims, five of whom had the first name Muhammad. However, much was said about how Muslims were the “hidden victims” (the title of a 2002 Islamic Human Rights Commission conference) of the attack, not because so many died, but supposedly due to discrimination afterward. Aladin Elaasar even wrote a book entitled Silent Victims: The Plight of Arab and Muslim Americans in Post 9/11 America.

The current culture in the West rewards groups that complain the most about racism. The same is certainly true in Israel, where the media and cultured elite never seem to notice successful Arab entrepreneurs or the sea of wealth obscured by the seemingly destitute appearance of Arab villages. This is probably unfortunate, for it not only ignores success and inflames tensions, but also creates problems where they don’t exist.

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.

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